When Peter Mathos was 17 years old, a prep school senior in Providence, R.I., his father asked him a question that changed his life.
"At the time, I was a management trainee in a toy store," Mathos said, "and I was planning to go to college. My life was going down this one track. Then my father came to me one day and asked if I could give him a hand at the restaurant. This was something that was unlike my father--he never asked anyone for anything. He was a very proud man. I felt honored that he would come to me. Without a second of thinking, I quit my job and started working for him."
So began the career of a third-generation chef.
Mathos, 35, has run the kitchens of restaurants serving classic French, Spanish, Russian, continental and kosher food in the two decades since he quit his toy store job and went to work at his father's side. He's toiled on the line--prep cook, broiler cook, saucier. He's baked dinner rolls for 600 from scratch; carved pelicans from blocks of ice; hosted Hawaiian luaus for hundreds.
Now executive chef and director of food services at the Palm Terrace restaurant at Laguna Hills' Leisure World, Mathos recalled his early days as "chief cook and bottle washer" in his father's restaurants with a mixture of pride and astonishment.
"Two years after I went to work for my father, he went into the hospital for a major eye operation," Mathos said. "I had to run a restaurant that had a banquet hall that served 500 to 600 people, and another dining room that held 200 people. We're talking feeding 3,000 people on the weekends, making everything from scratch. I was the only cook. I had kitchen help, but no other cooks.
"I remember we were in the car on the way to (the hospital in) Boston, and I'm taking down recipes--'OK, now what's in the French dressing? What's the dough recipe?' I wasn't worried about taking over, but I did have a few questions."
And he had a second restaurant to run a few days later when the cook at the family's other restaurant--a steak and seafood place--walked out with no notice.
"I'd get all the food prepped for the banquets, then I'd go to the other (restaurant) and get that food ready." Mathos shook his head at the memory. "I was 19, you know? I was real busy."
Older, wiser and only slightly less busy, Mathos now works six 12-hour days per week and divides his downtime between a crash pad in Leisure World and an apartment in Los Angeles.
At work, "I hardly ever eat," he said. "Working with food, you're always under pressure. You get knots in your stomach, and you don't want food."
After work, "Burger King might look like the best cuisine in the world," he said, laughing. "It just depends on how hungry I am."
Like his father, Mathos never cooks at home. His fiancee cooks for him, or they go out--to a sushi bar, a Thai restaurant, a Mexican place. "Just so it's not the same kind of food that I'm around all day at work. I like to try food with unique flavors, something I wouldn't normally run into. The other day I ate a dried mackerel carcass--that was interesting. Or a tempura shrimp head. I keep an open mind about food. That's how you learn new things."
For the less experimental: Mathos' hot chicken salad with fruit, vegetables and bread. Three courses in one--perfect for lunch or a light dinner.
PETER MATHOS' HOT CHICKEN SALAD
4 slices fresh pineapple
4 slices honeydew melon
2 medium tomatoes
1 bunch watercress
1 bunch spinach
1 bunch romaine lettuce
1/2 cup oil and vinegar dressing
1/2 stick butter
8 slices crusty bread
granulated onion and garlic
4 boneless chicken breasts
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoons pepper
1/4 pound mushrooms
3 cloves finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup brown sauce (such as Knorr-Swiss demi-glace)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
(Note: Measurements of ingredients listed above are for four servings. The following instructions describe preparation and presentation of one serving. This is a decorative as well as nutritional dish. You can simplify presentation--by slicing tomatoes, for example, rather than cutting them to form a bird of paradise, as Mathos does.)
Place pineapple slice on one side of plate; place honeydew slice on top, forming a circle. Cut wedges from kiwi, leaving slice that will form a handle; hollow out kiwi with melon scoop, so kiwi forms a basket. Quarter one strawberry and place strawberry wedges and kiwi wedges (from hollowed out fruit) in basket. Place kiwi basket on top of honeydew slice on plate.
Slice tomato in half. Place tomato half cut side down on plate. Carve a wedge from center of tomato half, then cut another wedge into that wedge and another wedge into that wedge, forming three wedges. Repeat process on both sides of tomato half (to form bird of paradise back and wings). Pull tomato wedges slightly away from core. Cut 1/4-inch slice of apple, trim away meat and use skin for neck and head of tomato bird.
Cut avocado in half; peel. Cut two slices and place on plate opposite fruit basket. Place tomato bird inside avocado slices.
Clean greens; toss with salad dressing. Place serving of greens on plate between tomato bird and fruit basket.
Spread butter on one side of bread, sprinkle with granulated onion and garlic and paprika. Grill bread over medium flame; remove, place on plate.
Cut chicken breasts into small pieces, trimming excess fat. Flour chicken.
Heat shallow saucepan over hot flame until pan is very hot. Add vegetable oil, chicken, salt and pepper. When halfway cooked (approximately 2 minutes) add mushrooms and garlic.
Stir occasionally, until chicken browns evenly on all sides. Add vinegar and brown sauce. Cook for additional 2 minutes, until sauce is slightly thicker. Remove from heat. Fold in 1 teaspoon butter. Spoon chicken on top of greens. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.